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Chicago filmmaker found pleasure in making movie about vibrators

Chicago native TanyWexler directed “Hysteria” which takes place Victorian England.

Chicago native Tanya Wexler directed “Hysteria,” which takes place in Victorian England.

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Go to for Ebert’s review of “Hysteria” as well as “Men in Black 3.”

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Updated: August 23, 2012 9:51AM

Tanya Wexler clearly loves to laugh. She laughed when her producer told her “I’ve got your next movie” and proceeded to describe how the personal vibrator was invented in Victorian England. Years later, she still laughs about that wonderfully strange irony.

That delight shines through in “Hysteria,” Wexler’s first feature film in over a decade, after taking time off to start a family.

The romantic comedy involves an idealistic yet somewhat priggish young doctor (Hugh Dancy), an outspoken suffragette (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and her doctor daddy’s extremely prosperous practice devoted to treating the malaise of well-to-do London ladies with a certain highly specialized form of massage.

And much deep denial.

Wexler grew up in Chicago with famous family members, including her half-sister, actress Daryl Hannah, and her uncle, cinematographer Haskell Wexler, who also wrote and directed 1969’s “Medium Cool.”

Q. What appealed to you most about “Hysteria”?

A. I think the thing that makes me laugh about this movie is the denial that’s going on. Here’s the truth, right in front of your face, and you can’t see it. That applies to the doctors and the very proper women who were their patients. You had this diagnosis of “hysteria” at the time, which was basically a catch-all diagnosis for the condition of being a woman. The condition of being a woman, that is, who doesn’t fit into the very small box of what society imagined a woman was supposed to be.

If you were unhappy or upset at the limitations that were being placed on you, something was wrong with you. And the treatment consisted of doctors massaging you in a very personal way and inducing “paroxysms.” Which was a pretty decent treatment, when you think about it.

Q. What do you look for, in general, when you’re considering potential projects?

A. I look for actor magnets, things that draw great actors to roles. Because I think great actors are what draw us into films. So I look for roles actors want to play. I also look for well-written scripts, which are very hard to find.

Q. What was your first exposure to movie-making?

A. I was an actress as a kid here in Chicago. I did local commercials and stuff like that. And a few theater productions, including a pre-Broadway run of a musical when I was about 8. And I would go visit Daryl or Haskell on the set. I remember, among other things, visiting Daryl on the set of “Blade Runner.” I was 12 or 13 at the time and I was going, “Omigod! That’s Harrison Ford! That’s Han Solo!”

Q. How much of an influence was Haskell Wexler on your career?

A. He’s actually been more of an influence in terms of politics and getting out there and fighting for what you believe in. That’s a big deal in our family.

I didn’t really get to know him well until I was older. My dad died when I was 22, and Haskell stepped into my life more after that. He’s been very, very helpful though, I must say.

When I was making my first feature, about halfway through the shoot, I was horrifically miserable. I’d made two shorts, so I thought, “This will just be a longer version of that.” But no. Shorts are sprints. Features are marathons.

I remember crying on the phone to Haskell: “I don’t want to do this anymore!” I was talking about the thing I wanted to do more than anything else my life, basically, but I wanted out. And he calmed me down and gave me some very basic advice: “Stick by your director of photography, take deep breaths” ... And that really made all the difference. Because I knew he’d been there.

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